Editorial:

Judges’ punishments should be public

Posted

A Cheyenne judge apparently did something she shouldn’t have.

The Wyoming Commission on Judicial Conduct and Ethics put out a news release last month announcing that Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Healy had been disciplined with a “private censure.” That means the commission — which oversees discipline of Wyoming’s judges — issued Healy a confidential document expressing disapproval with something she did.

Whatever that something was, it was serious enough that the commission ordered Healy to take a legal class and to pay $15,990.28 to cover the expense of investigating and punishing her. The commission also apparently thought that, while the public didn’t need to know what Judge Healy did, it was important for the citizens of Wyoming to know she had been punished.

It’s hard to follow that logic.

We aren’t privy to any of the facts of this case, which makes it difficult for us to second-guess the judges, attorneys and private citizens who make up the Commission of Judicial Conduct and Ethics.

But we can say that the state and commission should do away with private censures: Our judges are some of the most powerful and highly compensated public officials in our state and if they engage in misconduct, they should be publicly disciplined.

As the Wyoming Tribune Eagle noted in a report last month, the commission’s rules give it the option of censuring, reprimanding or admonishing a judge privately.

Private discipline generally indicates that a judge’s misconduct was relatively minor. But the secret, confidential nature of the discipline leaves a whole lot to the imagination — especially as citizens consider whether they want to vote to keep that judge on the bench.

“It’s both unfair to the voter and unfair to the judge, frankly,” attorney Bruce Moats, who often represents Wyoming newspapers in open government issues, told the Tribune Eagle. “Unfortunately for the judge … it allows speculation and suspicion. [And] if the public has to go up and vote on retention, and you don’t know what [the conduct] is, it can certainly significantly affect that.”

The Wyoming State Bar Association similarly can impose private punishments when it disciplines an attorney.

But it’s a mistake to put judges on the same scale as lawyers. As Moats noted to the Tribune Eagle, “There is a difference between the discipline of an attorney, who may be acting totally privately, as opposed to someone that is holding public office.”

Further, these are public officials who wield tremendous power.

A few words from a judge can bring a lifetime in prison or financial ruin; they decide who can see their children and for how long; they decide whether someone can present their case to a jury; and they review decisions made by lawmakers, county commissioners and city councils.

Judges also enjoy a lot of discretion and their decisions are given great deference; in some cases, an appellate court will overturn a decision only if the original judge’s ruling “exceeded the bounds of reason.”

It makes perfect sense that judges are given the ability to tailor their decisions to the wide range of cases and people that pass before them — and that the judge who actually hears a case is given the benefit of the doubt on appeal.

But it also means our judges can and should be held to extremely high standards. If a judge is found to have engaged in misconduct or acted unethically, the voting public should know. There is no reason for a judge who has effectively been “convicted” by the commission to be afforded special protections.

Part of the reason we believe misconduct should be made public is that the overwhelming majority of our judges take great pains to follow the rules.

As Wyoming’s dozens of judges handled hundreds of thousands of cases last year, the Commission of Judicial Conduct and Ethics dealt with a total of 23 verified complaints. According to the commission’s annual report, 20 of the 23 were dismissed or withdrawn, while the commission issued just one letter of caution, one letter of correction and one censure — which, in that 2017 case, the commission chose to make public.

In short, discipline is rare, and when it happens, we, the voting public, should know about it. Private or, in this case, quasi-private discipline serves no one well.

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